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Swedish Government Rethinks COVID-19 Containment Strategy

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Sweden did things differently when the coronavirus first appeared in Europe. Other countries locked down to stop COVID-19 from spreading. Sweden relied largely on voluntary social distancing. But now infections, deaths and hospitalizations are surging. A recent poll shows that Swedes are losing confidence in the country's ability to combat the virus. The government is now rethinking its strategy. And we're joined by reporter Maddy Savage in Stockholm.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MADDY SAVAGE: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: What are the latest infection numbers, Maddy? And what kind of spike in cases and deaths has Sweden seen?

SAVAGE: Well, things aren't looking good here in Sweden right now. Just to give you a bit of context, you might remember it did badly at the start of the pandemic - very high case numbers in proportion to its population size. But in July, August - over the summer here, numbers dropped significantly, which got a lot of anti-lockdown supporters around the world praising the strategy.

Back then, we were seeing a few hundred confirmed cases a day. Now we are seeing several thousand a day, and well over 6 1/2 thousand people have died. And if you compare that to other Scandinavian countries - Finland and Norway have both had less than 400 deaths with populations of around 5 million. So Sweden hasn't been able to slow the spread of the virus anywhere near as much as it hoped.

MCCAMMON: There's obviously a lot of concern about this. Sweden's prime minister has announced new restrictions. What do those look like?

SAVAGE: Well, there are two things going on here. There are both tougher voluntary recommendations and changes in the law - basically things like avoiding going to nonessential shops, gyms, museums, things like that. And also, Swedes have been asked to work from home or avoid public transport since March, but that message has been toughened.

Then we've got these new laws - a ban on more than eight people sitting together in bars, pubs and restaurants that came in a few weeks ago and, most recently, on Tuesday, a ban on public events of more than eight people - so stuff like sports games, theater performances, demonstrations. And you can be fined or get up to a six-month prison sentence if you break those rules.

MCCAMMON: How are Swedes reacting to these new guidelines?

SAVAGE: Life hasn't been normal here by any means, but more has stayed open than in a lot of Europe. So I think amongst some, there is certainly disappointment with these new restrictions and recommendations. But I've been speaking to some Swedes living in the capital, Stockholm, to find out what they make of the new restrictions, including 24-year-old Zacharias Lehnberg (ph).

ZACHARIAS LEHNBERG: Like, Swedes are usually inclined to follow rules. But young people, at least in Stockholm, don't take the situation very seriously.

ANDREA FAULK: My name is Andrea Faulk (ph). So I think it's good that the new - what do you call it? - restriction - we should close down more.

ALMA GRENAULT: My name is Alma Grenault (ph). When I turned 18, I went out and partied. But I have - like, we talked about this today that we want to follow it more because we're tired of this pandemic.

MCCAMMON: Do people, and particularly public health officials who are looking at the data - do they fear that these new measures could be too little, too late?

SAVAGE: Well, the Swedish Public Health Agency and the government have long given this message that it's better to have long-running restrictions for months rather than weeks to avoid going in and out of lockdown. So I think their argument would be that these new restrictions have come in at the right time when cases are increasing, and they hope it will be enough.

But on the other hand, we're seeing more and more people in the medical community here - senior officials suggesting that maybe more of society does need to be closed; maybe more should have been closed earlier. So I think the next few weeks and months will be a challenge. There are ongoing concerns about space in hospitals, the impact on already exhausted staff as we head into a long, cold winter here.

MCCAMMON: Which we're hearing all over the world right now. That's reporter Maddy Savage in Stockholm.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SAVAGE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.